US, Iran seek to stop Afghan narco-traffic
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Iran to attend a "big tent" conference on Afghanistan at the end of the month. And with characteristic candor, she has cited Tehran's problems with the Afghan drugs smuggled into Iran as one of several reasons why the Iranians should participate in the United Nations-sponsored event.
The ministerial-level conference is likely to take place in the Netherlands and involve the countries and organizations with stakes in Afghanistan's future. "If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran will be invited as a neighbor of Afghanistan," Clinton said last week. "It is a way of bringing all the stakeholders and interested parties together."
The narrow focus on select dimensions of the Afghanistan crisis and the hope to enlist Iran's cooperation mark a smart move by the administration of President Barack Obama in its new (yet to be fully determined) Afghanistan policy.
Preliminary signs from Iran indicate that it is inching toward accepting the invitation, assuming that it has been officially relayed, or will be shortly. This week's trip to Tehran by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, to attend the annual summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), will give Tehran and Kabul a unique opportunity to discuss the UN conference's modalities and will likely help to melt any Iranian hesitation to participate.
In that case, the pertinent question will be: what can possibly be achieved as a result of a huge multilateral meeting and the potential bilateral or trilateral talks on the sidelines? In other words, what exactly are the US's expectations and, for that matter, those of Iran, with respect to what Obama has referred to as the "stabilization of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan?"
On the symbolic level, the conference would be important in terms of giving some concrete form to Obama's abstract calls for engaging Iran, and this alone could positively impact the broader issues that stand between the US and Iran.
The main purpose of the conference, however, is to explore a regional approach to Afghanistan's worsening woes, and Clinton's mere reference to Iran and Pakistan as "regional and strategic countries" is a step in the new direction of looking at Iran as a source of a solution, rather than merely as a country that causes problems. This is a change from the George W Bush administration, which never stopped looking at Iran through the lenses of suspicion and mistrust.
Given the dire situation in Afghanistan as a result of misguided and half-hearted security policies, the option of avoiding Iran, which has considerable clout both in Afghanistan as well as in parts of adjacent Central Asia, is no longer available to the White House
This is particularly the case as Moscow has managed to convince Kyrgyzstan to shut down the US military base in that country, which serves as a key node for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supplies to Afghanistan. Given Moscow's willingness to allow non-lethal supplies to pass through its territory and its sphere of influence to Afghanistan, the US and NATO are desperately seeking alternative routes now that the roads from Pakistan, where the bulk of supplies pass through, have been turned increasingly deadly by the resurgent Taliban.
Iran may at some point consider allowing a transit corridor for NATO supplies, but that does not seem likely at the moment. For one thing, this would not sit well with Russia, Iran's sole nuclear partner that is under pressure by the US and the European Union not to make operational the much-delayed power plant in Bushehr and not to sell the sophisticated S-300 missile system to Iran.
A US-Russia summit is due in April, and should it appear that Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev are contemplating a quid pro quo on Iran, then Tehran may react by setting aside its reservations about NATO and cooperate with the Western alliance on Afghanistan.
At this weekend's meeting between Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, the latter seemed intent on withstanding US bullying to scrap the missile sale to Iran, yet few people in Iran believe this is the end of the story.
As a result, any substantive breakthrough in Iran-NATO cooperation on Afghanistan hinges to some extent on the nature of US-Russia deals on Iran, which is why the coming conference has the potential to drive an untimely wedge between Moscow and Tehran (from the point of view of Tehran).
At the same time, given the enormity of the Afghanistan crisis, propelled by the Taliban resurgence, an exponential increase in drug smuggling, Kabul's inefficiency and corruption, etc, there is a desperate need to prioritize Afghanistan's stability and thus stem the tide of political extremism and Islamist radicalism.
One option would be cooperation between NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has been conducting anti-drug operations since 2003, in tandem with other regional organizations. The SCO, which comprises China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, has added a Drug Control Coordination Unit to its welter of regional activities.
Given Iran's membership in ECO and its (enhanced) observer status at SCO, such a method of cooperating with the US and its Western allies on the narcotics traffic from Afghanistan has the advantage of putting to rest any anxiety on Moscow's part about any US intention to "divide and conquer"'.
Afghanistan is the source of over 90% of the illicit opium in the world, according to the International Narcotics Control Board. According to the board's 2008 report, Afghanistan produces over 7,000 tons of opium. Mixed with certain chemicals, opium is used to manufacture heroin.
A successful anti-narcotics campaign would cripple Afghanistan's narco-economy that relies heavily on illicit revenue and which benefits the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.
The trick is how to push forward counter-insurgency and anti-narcotics campaigns simultaneously, as this would require a broad, multi-pronged strategy involving determined efforts by the Kabul government, neighboring states and international actors.
The gap would have to be narrowed between development assistance programs and anti-narcotics plans, whereby thousands of farmers presently cultivating opium poppy or cannabis would not be risking their livelihoods by switching to, among other things, wheat and cotton.
A recent UN report on Afghanistan attributes a sharp 19% decline in opium production in 2008 to a combination of declining opium prices, a food crisis, bad weather, as well as more effective government interdiction and eradication efforts.
Yet, the same report says that about 14 provinces in Afghanistan have no eradication program at all and that last year, compared with the target goal of eradicating 50,000 hectares of land from poppy production, only 5,480 hectares were eradicated, partly as a result of a lack of funding and proper equipment.
In the southern province of Helmand alone, which is a Taliban stronghold and where two-thirds of all the drug trade is located, the area under poppy cultivation has tripled since 2006. The Taliban have reversed their pre-2001 antipathy to illicit drugs and now earn tens of millions of dollars by imposing hefty surcharges on the drug traffic.
Another report, by a Kabul-based research group, blames the government's failure to contain the menace of drug smuggling on "corrupt officials" who "allow drug traffickers to continue to operate with impunity, while officials attempting to address the drug problem are often subject to harassment, death threats or violence". Drug-related corruption is widespread and some members of the Afghan army have been arrested on drug charges.
This year promises to be just as bad, if not worse, in terms of the the drug traffic, bringing with it a wide range of social ills, and in Iran in particular. It is estimated that about 30% of the drugs funneling through Iran are for the country's internal market. This is despite the same UN report cited above stating categorically that "more opium is seized in Iran than any other country in the world".
Tehran's government estimates that 2,500 tons of opium enter the country from Afghanistan each year, 700 tons of which is destined for abuse in Iran, and that on average the Iranian police seize 500 tons every year.
Iran's counter-narcotics efforts
As the US prepares to enter into a meaningful dialogue with Tehran over Afghanistan issues, it is important for Washington policy-makers to understand the wealth of efforts and energy that Iran has been putting in its counter-narcotics campaign, unilaterally and otherwise.
Iran has tough anti-narcotics laws that have resulted in the internment of some 70,000 drug traffickers. Tehran has deployed several thousand troops to protect the 1,600-kilometer porous borders with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, another major entry point of drugs into Iran, and hundreds of drug-enforcement agents die each year in battles with highly armed smugglers. Also, adding to the exorbitant costs is the huge amount that Iran has allocated to tackle rampant drug abuse afflicting the country's youth.
Iran has not received much of a helping hand from the world community in this regard and the "big tent" conference is an opportunity for the Europeans in particular to offer tangible assistance. This they could do in such areas as Iran's drug-abuse program, by building better border posts and in placing obstacles along the Afghan and Pakistan borders.
The European Union recently signed a memorandum of agreement with the ECO, providing token assistance to the ECO's regional anti-drug efforts. This is a venue US policy-makers could consider for making a major contribution, since the absence of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington and the US sanctions on Iran prevent a direct contribution to Iran on the anti-drug front.
Mindful of the close connection between Afghanistan's resurgent insurgency and the substantial increase in the illicit drug trade, Iranian officials recently took part in a trilateral initiative with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The three countries upgraded intelligence-sharing and the exchange of information, and vowed to counter the illicit trade in precursor chemicals. This is another area in which a lot more substantive effort can be launched now that the US does not subscribe to the Bush administration's efforts to keep Kabul at a safe distance from Tehran.
On the multilateral front, other than the ECO, Iran has participated in a number of forums, including the Caspian Sea Initiative led by Turkmenistan that aims at capacity building in regional anti-drug efforts, and the group that comprises the Central Asian states plus Russia, the US and Iran.
The problem with the US's new Iran overture is, as always, one of consistency: no sooner had Clinton made her invitation to Iran when the top American commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, repeated allegations of Iran's support for the Taliban, a charge flatly denied by Tehran.
As a result, Iran is not altogether satisfied that Washington's invitation is completely genuine and it has sent the message that "more positive signals" are needed. Mckiernan's negative comments were certainly not helpful.
As the main victim of the Afghan drug trade that fuels the anti-Iran Taliban, Iran is poised to enter into a productive dialogue with the US and its NATO partners on how to tackle this problem. Simply micro-focusing on the multiple dimensions of the narcotics trade is the right approach at the moment, for the US, Iran and the embattled government in Kabul.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.